WHEN consulting online, patients and doctors alike should beware of behavioral red flags such as virtue signaling (the conspicuous communication of moral values to garner praise for one’s righteousness); social vigilantism (the tendency to propagate one’s “superior” belief to correct others’ ignorance); and toxic positivity (the belief that people should maintain a positive mindset no matter how dire a situation is).

“[Because] the Internet is an extension of society, we should apply the same standards online as we do in public,” said Dr. Patrick Gerard L. Moral, a physician and associate professor of medical ethics at the University of Santo Tomas.

Toxic positivity, added Dr. Moral, silences emotions, deters individuals from seeking support, and pressures them to pretend to be happy. An example of toxic positivity is telling someone who can’t support his family that he is at least alive.

“That’s why I share that I’m clinically depressed,” he said at a Feb. 24 webinar organized by the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP). “I want people to know my life isn’t perfect.”

Physicians have been using online platforms for their healthcare advocacy since the pandemic. Social media, as pointed out during the webinar, provides a vehicle to receive real-time information, stamp out health misperceptions, and learn from patients and caregivers.

Healthcare providers can practice digital responsibility by being deliberate about what they post and understanding that sensibilities — such as political views and sense of humor — aren’t universal. They also need to declare any conflict of interest and shun harassment.

In the Philippines, the most popular physicians in cyberspace include the cardiologist Dr. William T. Ong, who has a 7 million-strong following on YouTube and is now running for vice-president, as well as Dr. Carlo Nemesio B. Trinidad, a nephrologist from Dagupan Doctors Villaflor Memorial Hospital and creator of the Hello Kidney Facebook page, which has close to 100,000 followers.

“Social media is the great equalizer. It breaks down hierarchies and enables connections,” Dr. Trinidad said. “There is the potential to reach millions with a single post or tweet.” He added that platforms like Twitter have enabled him to connect with “gods of [the medical] fields” and meet trialists he would otherwise have just read about in books.

Dr. Trinidad cautioned, however, that posting publicly is not for the faint of heart. He narrated how he was trolled when he said tuob (or steam inhalation therapy) is not effective against coronavirus.

“People said I was for Big Pharma, that I didn’t respect elders,” he said at the PCP webinar, adding that he approaches naysayers with diplomacy. “If you mention facts, you may not convince the person you’re talking to, but you may convince the lurkers.” 

The goal for physicians is to be positive influencers, according to Dr. Moral — individuals who are relatable, add context to sensational headlines, and stay informed on current questions.

“At its heart, digital media is about people, relationships, and communication. We have to translate our communication skills into the digital setting,” he said. — Patricia B. Mirasol


How to consult online

Dr. Patrick Gerard L. Moral, a physician and associate professor of medical ethics at the University of Santo Tomas, shared this guide on the art of digital messaging by Facebook Messenger in partnership with Debrett’s London, a professional coaching company.

Knowing how to communicate online will help ease the teleconsultation process.

• Hone your tone — avoid irony unless you are sure the other person will get the joke.

• Keep it concise — stick to a few sentences, especially for someone you don’t know well.

• Don’t multi-message — don’t send five messages if one suffices.

• Share with care — don’t forward a message unless the original sender has given permission.

• Know your audience — keep the conversation relevant to the majority.

• Don’t leave them hanging — respond, even if only to say you don’t know the answer.

• Abide by the quick reply — leave a message unread until you have time to respond.

• Give up the ghosting — end an interaction with a polite explanation.

• Practice good exit-quette — either mute a conversation or offer a brief reason for leaving it.

• Sign off in style — sign off every messaging conversation.